May Day Musings on Maryland’s Radical Traditions: Elizabeth Gilman

Kurt Stand
Regular Contributor


This is the first entry in a larger series recounting labor history in Maryland

On May 1, 1937, merchant seamen across the United States burned or tossed into the ocean “fink books” – continuous discharge papers seamen were required to carry and that listed every act of “insubordination” with which they were charged. They thus served to blacklist unionists, and to make others accept unfair treatment without complaint. Coming after a bitter, bloody coastal strike that established the National Maritime Union, the action reflected workers determination to make the promise offered by the New Deal real by taking matters in their own hand. It is a small piece of our radical heritage that has local meaning – for merchant seamen in the port of Baltimore played a critical role in winning that struggle.

Maryland is and has long been something of a crossroads as a state – home to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, it was at a junction of the underground railroad with its network of supporters working to protect freedom seekers from slavery’s local collaborators. Already an industrial center in the 19th century, Baltimore was an early site of union activity and gave birth after the Civil War to a biracial longshore union, one of the first in the country. Later two segregated locals were formed, as affiliates of the same national union (the ILA). But far worse, it was a city that was also at the forefront of white worker exclusion of black worker from skilled jobs after abolition – a process particularly brutal at shipyards where Douglass and many slaves and freed slaves had performed skilled labor in pre-Civil War years. Similar contradictions have appeared in subsequent years throughout the state and are the framework within which left-wing radicalism has emerged and fought.

That radical tradition is one we ought to recall as we face our own challenges in developing a path forward through these difficult, frightening times. The background, life journey and perspectives of Elisabeth Gilman, Pat Whelan and Gloria Richardson varied considerably, but each made a mark on our state’s history as part of national movements seeking to transform political culture and power relationships locally and in society at large.

Socialists Running for Public Office in Maryland: Elisabeth Gilman

Gilman came from an elite Maryland family and took seriously the call to service of the Episcopalian church within which she was raised. This was unlike many of her contemporaries who remained blind to injustice while paying lip service to Christian ideals. Influenced by proponents of Christian socialism and the Social Gospel as well as by the settlement house work of Jane Addams, she made a commitment to social justice as a way of life with a focus on alleviation of poverty – this, in turn, led to her support of women’s rights, her advocacy of the rights of immigrants and opposition to all forms of racial discrimination. Gilman’s commitment to reform was influenced by her family background that included well known figures from the time of the American Revolution through to the Civil War (including abolitionist Wendell Phillips). More immediately, her father, Daniel Coit Gilman, was a founder of John Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1876, which was initially conceived as an institution of higher learning dedicated to comprehensive academic education and to public service – principles carried over into the field of medical studies. Already in his lifetime the conflict between those ideals and the avarice of trustees more concerned with lip service than substance was apparent. Elisabeth Gilman kept faith to that vision in contrast to many of her contemporaries, who fell into the Social Darwinian rationalizations of the new corporate elite.

For Gilman, those ideals led to socialist convictions. Her initial encounter took place at a 1916 conference held at Sherwood Forest in Anne Arundel County (near Annapolis) where leading Socialists of the era discussed the future with World War I raging and possible U.S. participation within it an on-going concern. It was there that she met Harry Laidler, later head of the League of Industrial Democracy, New York Socialist Congressman Meyer London, leading socialist intellectuals such as John Spargo, Charles Edward Russell and others. Many of these would go on to support the war after the United States joined the conflict, then, after the war, support a farmer-labor party project that was to lead to the formation of the Progressive Party and the 1924 presidential campaign of (the consistently anti-war) Robert LaFollette. Gilman followed her own path – at the time, a pro-war socialist herself, she went to Paris as a volunteer social worker helping minister to soldiers during their brief respites from combat.

The experience deepened her awareness of the lives of others and she plunged deeper and deeper into political activism after her return including support for LaFollette’s campaign in Maryland. Part of Gilman’s increasing radicalism came about through her support of a West Virginia coalminers strike that began in 1921. The miners faced off massive violence by vigilantes through armed resistance at Matewan and the surrounding area, but were beaten by direct U.S. army intervention including aerial bombings of mining villages. It was not armed force alone which defeated the workers, rather it was near starvation as hunger forced the strikers back to work. That hunger reached western Maryland’s coal mining areas around Cumberland (which suffered a major mining accident in 1916) and Frostburg, as the mines closed due to overproduction elsewhere. Gilman’s work raising relief funds for miners’ families was followed by her support for striking railroad, textile, garment and other workers in subsequent years.

Defending striking workers grew out of defense of civil liberties; she was a founder of Maryland Civil Liberties Committee in 1921 (a precursor to the ACLU) in response to the Palmer Raids during the post-War “Red Scare” which resulted in mass deportation of immigrants with left-wing beliefs. Repression of anti-war activists contributed to her own increasingly anti-war politics and brought her closer to Socialist leader Norman Thomas, also a well-to-do believer in the Christian Social Gospel. Later she joined the campaign to free Sacco and Vanzetti – Italian-American anarchists falsely accused of a bank robbery, who were executed in Massachusetts in 1927 despite worldwide protests. And she joined the national campaign to defend Tom Mooney and Warren Billings – left-wing socialist unionists arrested in 1916 on false charges of having bombed a “preparedness” pro-war march. The two spent 22 years in prison before being released in 1938.

Gilman joined the Socialist Party in 1929 as it embarked on a renewed period of activism after a decade of splits and decline. At its Maryland State Convention in Hagerstown – still a regional industrial center – she was nominated as its gubernatorial candidate. Thereafter she ran twice as the Socialist candidate for the U.S. Senate, municipal offices in Baltimore for Mayor and for Sheriff, and a final race for Governor in 1945 (when she was 78). The Socialist Party program she ran on during her campaigns included a call for public ownership of utilities, transportation, natural resources as well as municipal ownership of dairies, bakeries and markets so food could be priced within the reach of all. Socialists also wanted to improve transportation across the state – through publicly owned and publicly managed affordable bus and train service – and via a bridge that would cross the Chesapeake, a proposal made two decades before the Bay Bridge was built.

So too, Gilman in her campaigns always advocated improved education for all inclusive of the poor, as well as for quality housing for working people to replace slums – then already visible in Baltimore’s immigrant communities and in the African American community as the black population was “imprisoned” in ghettos formed by strictly enforced housing segregation. Her opposition to racism and principled support for equal rights was personal and political. One aspect of that was her opening up her home for a public event celebrating Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villiard with an audience composed of black and white as a response to the fact that not a single hotel, restaurant, or public venue in Baltimore would serve a “mixed” crowd. But her concern went deeper than that, as she raised the issue of the treatment of black prisoners at a Baltimore penitentiary, and made a call for an end to racial discrimination in education.

After a lynching in Salisbury in 1932 ignored by state government, Gilman took part in the (unsuccessful) campaign led by the NAACP to pass a federal anti-lynching bill. Her frequent co-campaigner for higher office on the Socialist ticket, Broadus Mitchell, a white southerner who rejected the South’s “traditional” way of life, investigated the lynching, and the complicity of local officials in the town (and throughout the Eastern Shore), in protecting the perpetrators. His work made plain that the highest levels of Maryland’s state government were similarly unwilling to act to bring about justice when the victim was black. Mitchell had been a professor at Hopkins, but his anti-lynching views and his Socialist perspectives on politics and economics made him unwelcome at the university and so he resigned in 1938. His treatment reflected how far Hopkins had traveled from Daniel Gilmore’s legacy and how far Elisabeth Gilman traveled in the opposite direction to give political meaning to her father’s ideals.

And all the while she continued to work to defend civil liberties in every arena where threatened. That included opposition to so-called teacher loyalty oaths, promulgated in many states across the country in the 1930s – but defeated in Maryland after a determined campaign by teachers, local unionists, Socialists, Communists and others. She was later a strong supporter for the Workers Defense League (founded by Socialist Party members in 1938 and still active defending worker rights today). And she was a vocal opponent of fascism in Europe and of those in Maryland who minimized the danger it posed. Gilman’s values were encapsulated in a response she gave to those who mocked her capabilities, as an elderly woman, to serve in law enforcement when running for sheriff: protecting the rights of the accused, especially women and people in the black community, was more important than focusing on ways of punishing people. In her last election campaign, run as World War II ended, Gilman’s stated goals serve as a legacy to socialist humanism: protection of civil liberties, an end to racial discrimination, full employment and peace on the basis of the United Nations charter that recognized that war fed upon poverty. In sum, political and industrial democracy.

May Day

When merchant seamen burnt their “fink” books on May Day in 1937, Baltimore had a powerful left-wing labor movement that – as part of the CIO – built strong inter-racial unions as part of a democratic upsurge. It was a time when Socialists, Communists, independent leftists still celebrated May 1st as a celebration of working-class strength. In Part 2 next month, we will look more at the history of class struggle at Baltimore’s waterfront in the 1930s and 40s. For now, it is enough to note how little is remembered of that era, how much has been destroyed in the intervening years. Thinking about the poverty, racism, injustice next to unforgiveable wealth, can make past struggles for justice and equality – and the individuals who waged them – seem like failures.

Gilman, for example, once quite prominent, was forgotten as she passed away. Who in Hagerstown would know that she was nominated at a Socialist Party Convention there; who in West Virginia would know of her support for striking mine workers; who crossing that Bay Bridge would have any notion that she advocated its building as part of a socialist goal to overcome the poverty and isolation then prevalent on the Eastern Shore? But that is not how Gilman would have understood her legacy, something we know because of the good cheer and determination with which she continued to advocate for socialism when aging, even though her vote totals were always small. The reason: she lived her life according to her beliefs, beliefs that led to a search for a path that might bring immediate change to improve the lives of those most in need, without abandoning the goal of fundamental change in the structure of a society that breeds hunger, poverty, joblessness and despair. Such a world could only be brought about, Gilman clearly understood, through genuine solidarity – which is why she opposed racism, mistreatment of women, and war.

Connecting the near and far via the solidarity of mutual support in opposition to the “me, myself and I” greed of capitalism’s unethical ethics is the basis of the workers movement, of socialism – and of May Day. So this May 1 let’s drink a toast to Gilman and her comrades who helped build the road we are still building for the better world to be.

See other articles in the May 2020 Edition